Videos, phones... Judge Joel Pearce is just waiting for an Asian horror film that features a haunted food processor.
The last call you'll ever get…
A strong second half and excellent use of horror conventions make up for a weak and confusing beginning in this Korean horror film. Tartan Video is also commended for issuing a fine DVD.
Facts of the Case
Ji-won, a reporter who has recently uncovered a sex scandal, is receiving a number of threats and obscene calls. She moves to the empty house of her sister Ho-Jeong (Kim Yu-Mi) and brother-in-law, and changes the number on her cellphone. Some strange calls continue, though, and soon her young niece Young-Ju (Eun Suh-Woo) is possessed after she answers the phone. Somehow, the new phone number and the house all seem to be connected, and Ji-won must quickly find out how.
Writing a review for Phone is difficult. On the plus side, it has succeeded in exactly what it has set out to do. It's expertly shot, has a series of brilliantly designed horror sequences, keeps dark secrets hidden until the last few minutes of the running time, and has one of the creepiest little girls in the history of film. The cinematography is remarkable, with great use of color and special effects that are subtle and scary. The sound kicks in at the perfect moments, toying with the audience in that way that only great horror films do. Director Ahn Byong Ki has obviously watched a lot of horror movies from Hollywood and Japan, and he has figured out exactly what tricks work the best. Even though the characters are pulled straight out of the horror movie convention book, all of them are delivered with passion and sincerity from the talented cast.
If only these elements had been placed in an overall better film. Unfortunately, the plot doesn't make a whole lot of sense until the end, and even then it doesn't bother to incorporate the early subplot into the eventual resolution. There is little progression between individual scenes, and at times it feels like the entire film is just a series of good scary movie ideas run back to back. The transitions are often confusing, destroying the overall suspense as the audience tries to figure out where they are. Phone is also dreadfully derivative, which is a bigger problem. The premise, with a young attractive reporter who must uncover the story behind haunted electronic devices is torn right out of Ringu. There are scenes taken almost directly from The Others, The Eye, and Dark Water. Each scene arrives, and we realize we ought to be scared by them, but we've seen them all before, and there hasn't been enough character and plot development for us to care about the characters.
These two problems combined should make for a thoroughly disappointing viewing experience. On a second viewing, though, I started to develop more respect for Phone. After all, this isn't the first derivative horror film I've seen, and it's more tightly constructed than many. Some of the scenes towards the end are more effectively constructed. It is only in the second half that we start to learn anything about these people, and we may care more if we had only received some of this information earlier. Especially impressive is Young-Ju, whose possession is truly believable. She is one scary little girl, and if we had only become attached to her before this possession, I think that her part of the film would have packed a serious punch. The twists and turns are totally unexpected, yet each moment of the film connects with others, so the twists never come completely out of left field. Films like The Sixth Sense and Ringu changed the way we look at horror films, and I think that we now often are disappointed when a horror film doesn't change all the rules and knock us over. Phone doesn't do anything new, but I can't deny that it does the usual thing with a high level of skill.
I am less torn over the transfer. The image quality is a little soft, but the colors and black levels are perfect. There were few compression errors and I didn't notice any print flaws. A few of the darker scenes lose some detail, but it's always possible to tell what's going on. The sound transfer is even better, with a choice of Dolby and DTS tracks. There is plenty of bass and surround action in the frightening scenes, and clear dialogue throughout. Although the video transfer is a step down from what we are used to seeing from Hollywood studios, this is a top-notch sound transfer that greatly enhances the experience of the film.
The disc has a surprising number of special features. There are interviews with the director and members of the cast. In the interview with Ahn Byong Ki, it's obvious that his choice to make this a genre film was quite calculated. For him, to create a film within the bounds of genre rules is an ideal, not a sell-out. The interviews with the cast members are interesting as well. Following the interviews are several production featurettes, which are quite long and thorough. There are a couple quick deleted scenes, but they were well left excluded from the final product. There is also a section of scene specific commentaries, but it's simply more interview footage with Eun Suh-Woo, with sequences from the film overlaid. Still, she is one cool little kid, so maybe that's not a bad thing. This is a remarkable amount of additional footage and material, and little of it seems pointless or fluffy.
Phone isn't going to change your life, and it isn't going to make you see the film industry in a different way. It's a ghost movie, and fans of the genre will come in knowing exactly what to expect. Fans of Asian horror will still find it a solid rental, though, and many may want to add it to their collections. Don't make a big fuss about its weaknesses, and don't worry about where all the ideas were stolen from. Just kick back and let this well crafted chiller give you a couple of hours of creepy fun. That's all it was really made for. Your brain may hate you in the morning, but it's cheaper and safer than a night of heavy drinking.
Ahn Byong Ki is free to go, although he is encouraged to put his artistry to more creative uses in the future. Tartan Video is applauded for their great treatment of this film.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Tartan Video
• Production Featurettes
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